review of Haven’s Wake by Ann Ronald

Some­times the title of a book cap­tures its content per­fectly. Such is the case with Haven’s Wake, Ladette Randolph’s novel of modern Men­nonite life and death and family secrets. When Haven Grabel, an eighty-​​five-​​year-​​old family patriarch, dies in a tractor accident on his Nebraska farm, his children and grand­children and in-​​laws imme­di­ately gather around his grieving widow. They mean well but, during the two days pre­ceding Haven’s funeral, an array of old antag­o­nisms are revisited and long-​​buried griev­ances come to the surface. Haven’s Wake, of course, refers to those two days, the family vigil that they all must endure. But “wake,” in this case, means more than simply the Grabels’s rit­u­al­istic watch. It also implies the aftermath, the con­se­quences, the trail that follows in Haven Grabel’s absence. Without his presence, the present unravels in pat­terns rem­i­niscent of the past.

Ran­dolph is espe­cially adept at weaving Men­nonite beliefs into her story of familial angst. The habit of shunning, of turning away from someone whose behavior or beliefs are unac­ceptable, plays a key role. So does the habit of never talking about some­thing painful, never dis­cussing tragedy, never con­fronting issues. Elsa, Haven’s widow, is par­tic­u­larly adroit at ignoring whatever she doesn’t want to acknowledge or admit. Her sons and her grand­children are equally adroit at reopening old family wounds and laying them bare.

If all this sounds like a sobering reading expe­rience, rest assured it isn’t. Haven’s Wake may offer a real­istic nar­ration of grief and uncom­fortable family history, but it also pulls together new con­nec­tions and new ways of under­standing. Elsa may be flawed in many ways, but she loves her off­spring and she believes in her church. When she is most troubled, she plays hymns on her piano, singing softly to herself or in harmony with others. And when the family rela­tion­ships are fraying, the sense of com­munity pre­vails. Friends support friends, family sup­ports family, and those threads hold the story lines together like one of Elsa’s beau­tiful quilts.

Another won­derful element of this touching novel is Randolph’s sense of the rural Nebraska land­scape. Returning readers of “Bookin’ with Sunny” know that I always appre­ciate a writer who draws scenery well. Throughout Haven’s Wake we hear the cicada and grasshopper and bum­blebee songs, smell the tas­seled corn, touch the rich black soil, watch thun­der­heads build and dis­perse. As the novel nears its climax, a summer storm inun­dates a nearby town but com­pletely misses the Grabel farm. So, too, the family storms may batter the par­tic­i­pants but they ulti­mately con­tinue their lives together and apart. In the hands of an inex­pe­ri­enced author, this par­allel would be too heavy-​​handed. Ran­dolph, however, handles the con­nection with great finesse.

After the funeral home viewing, when problems and pas­sions are most tense and intense, one of the Grabel wives says to her husband, “You know, Jonathan, yours isn’t the only family that behaves badly when it’s grieving.” How very true. Closing Haven’s Wake, I just now glanced at the cover and for a moment misread the title. My eyes saw “Heaven’s Wake,” rather than Haven’s. Perhaps that’s part of the title’s magic, and the novel’s magic, too. Despite the griev­ances, the family endures. That’s the real aftermath of Haven Grabel’s demise. – Ann Ronald